If the blitz on behalf of the downtown basketball arena is in any sense a grassroots campaign, label it 100 percent Astroturf paid for by the Houston Rockets and manufactured by corporate homeboys Enron and Reliant Energy.
At least that's the impression from perusing the latest campaign contribution report. It comes from the voter-friendly-titled "The Arena -- Let's Build It Together Committee," headquartered in committee treasurer Ned Holmes's political control tower at 55 Waugh Drive.
In another development in the campaign, some Republican Party activists are fuming about the rather transparent conversion of GOP County Chairman Gary Polland. He went from arena opponent to party schmoozer at the pro-arena forces shindig held last week at Mesa Grill in the River Oaks Shopping Center. Enron's Ken Lay, the Rockets' George Postolos and Reliant's retired CEO Don Jordan plugged the wonders of the arena to selected area Republicans. And Polland circulated in the crowd, sopping up kudos as the man who had defused GOP opposition to the upcoming referendum.
Arena forces now have adopted the military strategy of retired General Colin Powell: Only commit forces when the balance of power is 100 to 0. Even with an early September poll by Baselice and Associates showing the arena winning handily, supporters have tried to stomp on any anti-arena cockroach that dares to venture out of the woodwork.
Every potential opponent worth neutralizing has been taken out or bought off, from Polland and County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt to Aeros owner Chuck Watson. For leadership, the opposition is stuck with the likes of Bruce Hotze, the brother of religious-right activist Dr. Steven Hotze. Having a Hotze leading the charge is hardly a formula for building a winning coalition. He may have westside zealots in the bag, but he won't attract many more votes.
Judging by the arena committee's first filing of contributors, it's hardly a model of populist politics, either. Other than a lonely $10,000 contribution from former Enron exec Rich Kinder, it's all the Lay, Jordan and Rocket owner Les Alexander show.
The Rockets gave a whopping $476,000 to the campaign last month. Reliant Energy coughed up $100,000, no doubt with visions of a "Reliant Energy Arena" marquee on the $175 million structure.
Having already put its tag on the baseball stadium, Enron has been somewhat less generous with the arena, spotting the campaign $400,000 in interest-free loans. Just to be a good sport, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair tossed in $50,000 through his NFL Holdings.
Arena forces changed political consultants after the controversial California firm Winner/Wagner/Mandabach resigned in a clash with campaign manager Dave Walden. The firm, known for its anti-environmental and pro-gambling associations, had been pushed by the Rockets' Postolos (see "Arena Wars," Insider, August 24). Walden makes no bones about the reason for the firm's departure.
"They said they were not being paid enough to put up with an asshole like me," chuckles Walden, the former hatchet man/chief of staff for former mayor Bob Lanier. For its efforts, Winner/Wagner took a $12,000 retainer out the door. It has been replaced by the Austin-based Public Strategies, which crafted the pro-arena ads infesting the airwaves.
Meanwhile, die-hard arena opponents on the Harris County GOP executive committee are still mad over chairman Polland's flip-flop. He led the opposition to the facility last year, with generous contributions to his chairman's account by undisclosed donors. The Texas Ethics Commission is still conducting an investigation into the legality of that maneuver.
This time around, Polland effectively killed an anti-arena resolution by the party's local government committee. Then he pressured the county executive committee into a noncommittal stance on the election. Polland argued that arena opposition had to take a backseat to electing George W. Bush. Other party activists speculate that Bush supporter Lay used his connections to get the Bush campaign to rein in the leash on the local dogs.
GOP consultant Mary Jane Smith, who opposes the arena, contends that Polland's stance will help the Democrats come Election Day. She reasons that the arena forces are pouring resources into inner-city Democratic precincts to counter arena opposition in Republican suburbs. Smith predicts that by boosting Democratic turnout, the arena campaign will also pump up Vice President Al Gore's vote totals in those precincts. Smith says local GOP treasurer Paul Simpson told her Lay had given two $25,000 contributions to the local party.
GOP executive director Marc Cowart confirmed that Lay gave money to the local party. He declined to be more specific, saying the contributions are not reflected in the latest party campaign filing.
In the past, Polland has never been subtle in demanding political contributions as quid pro quo for his help in passing referenda. A local party source says the Bush campaign has dried up most local sources of contributions into the Harris County GOP, and the chairman is now trying to milk the arena forces just as he tapped into big bucks from the opposition last November.
After all, once given, it's difficult to discern the political orientation of a greenback.
Hotze Fetes Rollbackers
The evening after last week's marathon Houston City Council meeting ended the City Hall tax rate debate, GOP hyperconservative Dr. Steven Hotze rewarded the victorious rollback stalwarts with some good ol' Southern comfort food. So Hotze and his political consultant Allen Blakemore summoned the crew to a chowdown at the Confederate House Restaurant on Weslayan, that home of fine antebellum dining, where most of the minority input comes from the kitchen and the waitstaff.
Although eight councilmembers voted for the rollback, only six were invited to break corn bread with the good doctor. Four of them showed to get their strokes and freebie food from Hotze: District F's Mark Ellis, the rollback ringleader; District A's Bruce Tatro; District C's Mark Goldberg; and District E's Rob Todd.
Excluded was Carroll Robinson, the lone African-American. He first voted for the rollback but then broke with the pack to provide the winning margin for the compromise that reduced the original tax cut by one cent. Also snubbed was At-large Councilman Chris Bell, a Democrat with mayoral ambitions who stuck with the Rollback Eight through thick and thin.
"I don't think I would have accepted the invitation, because I think it sends the wrong message," says Bell about his exclusion. He accuses Mayor Lee Brown of harping on partisanship, and Hotze's association with the rollback effort just feeds into that perception.
"I don't think either party should be crowing about its efforts in the tax cut battle," says Bell.
Two conservatives who found other places to be were At-large Councilman Orlando Sanchez and District G's Bert Keller.
Sanchez attributed his absence from the Confederate House to lack of a baby-sitter rather than any political qualms.
"Let me tell you about this partisanship crap," snaps the councilman. "I'm tired of hearing about it. There's nobody who's more partisan than the mayor of the city of Houston and [Mayor Pro Tem] Jew Don Boney. If he can't take the political heat, he needs to get out of the kitchen."
Sanchez admits he was concerned that dining councilmembers would discuss city business. "I don't want to be involved in anything that might seem like a violation of the Open Meetings Act."
The fact that Hotze was paying for the dinner also raised a red flag with Sanchez, who is wary of supporters bearing gifts.
Councilman Keller says he was out jogging in Memorial Park and only heard of the Hotze invitation a few hours before dinnertime. "I already had an engagement," says Keller, "and it wasn't with an 18-year-old country-western singer, it was with a 38-year-old real estate broker."
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Keller was referring to a chanteuse he recently dated from a local band called the County Line Renegades, after his estranged wife, Susan, took up with fellow Councilman Todd.
Keller accompanied Todd and Ellis early this year on a pheasant-hunting trip organized and paid for by Hotze. Keller says he'll have no problems socializing with the gang in the future.
"I like those guys; they're fun to hunt with or they're fun to whatever," says the councilman. "I definitely would never have any problem eating with them. But I didn't think we won a Superbowl. I wasn't going to go blow any horns.
"And really, all we're talking about is $15 million on a $2.2 billion budget. I mean, we blow ten votes like that a week."